TV: Slings & Arrows

The best television shows get you interested in their subject matter, even when you’re not interested in their subject matter. That was certainly the case for me with Slings & Arrows, a hilarious Canadian comedy about a struggling Shakespearean theater company. The show combines madcap farce, romance, and inspiring drama as it entertainingly examines the world of theater, the emotional stresses of the creative mindset, and the uncomfortable intersection of art and commerce.

Based in the fictional town of New Burbage, Ontario, the show kicks off when Geoffrey Tennant (the fantastic Paul Gross) returns from obscurity to serve as interim artistic director for a theater festival rocked by the death of its stalwart leader, Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette). Tennant, Welles’ former protégé and an actor whose performing career famously imploded onstage, finds himself back in his old haunts, where an old flame rekindles with the festival’s lead actress Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns). Tennant wants to bring pure theater back to the festival, but his efforts are constantly threatened by the festival administration, his own emotional instability, and frequent heated arguments with Oliver’s ghost, who pesters him day and night.

Meanwhile, the business side of the festival is “managed” by beancounting dork Richard Smith-Jones (Kids in the Hall’s Mark McKinney). A closet theater fan, Richard has the unenviable duty of shaking the hands and kissing the asses of the festival’s government and corporate sponsors. With the considerably more competent assistance of his erstwhile associate director Anna (Susan Coyne), Smith-Jones attempts to keep the enterprise afloat – but constantly confuses the good of the festival with his own ambition, to frequently disastrous effect.

The series ran for three six-episode seasons, each centered around a major Shakespearean play. The central, weird love triangle (mad Geoffrey, neurotic Ellen, and dead Oliver) persists throughout, while comedic and romantic subplots change from season to season. The first season, while the concept is at its freshest, is easily the best. Centered around the festival’s Hamlet production, the season confidently builds  its world and characters, and is enhanced by an effective romance between young ingenue Kate (Rachel McAdams) and visiting Hollywood celeb Jack Crew (Luke Kirby), in town to bolster his dramatic street cred. Richard’s behind-the-scenes money-grubbing involves him with fast-talking corporate shill Holly Day (Jennifer Irwin) who wants to turn the festival into a tacky theme park. Also introduced is Darren Nichols (Don McKellar), an outrageously pretentious director, whose stormy comings and goings make for a soundly executed recurring joke throughout the series.

The subsequent seasons are less assured, but not without their highlights. Season two features MacBeth. Visiting blowhard actor Henry Breedlove (Geraint Wyn Davies) causes headaches for Geoffrey by playing it safe and refusing to acknowledge the director’s vision, while Richard leaps into bed with a wacky marketing agency called Froghammer (helmed by the wickedly funny Colm Feore). The third season focuses on a production of King Lear, which is complicated by its cantankerous elderly star (William Hutt), and by Richard’s starry-eyed involvement in the production of a garish musical called East Hastings. Trying to match the winning formula of the first year, these subsequent seasons also feature young romantic side stories, but they seem both less integral and more distracting; season two’s features Warehouse 13’s Joanne Kelly, season three’s a surprisingly unlikable Sarah Polley.

The biggest selling point of the show is Geoffrey Tennant, now one of my favorite TV characters ever. Gross’ performance is electrifyingly manic, shifting effortlessly from restrained panic to explosive hysteria. Aside from providing the most entertaining histrionics, Tennant also provides the show’s most inspirational moments, when he manages to coax magical moments out of the disorganized chaos of production. The show suggests that those pure theater moments, at their best, make the epic struggle worthwhile — and when Slings & Arrows is on its game, it makes a convincing argument. The ensemble surrounding Gross is excellent, filled with strongly developed characters.

Although I thought the series declined in quality as it went along, overall I still found it highly enjoyable right up to the end: an appealing combination of comedy and drama examining the emotional perils and triumphs of the artistic process.

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